It’s easy to go back and forth on the advantages of one structural framing material over another. Wood is less expensive than concrete or steel, but it can be wasteful due to cut-offs, which can reach 20 percent for site-built framing. Steel is dimensionally stable, non-combustible and more predictable than concrete or wood. Concrete is not as sustainable as wood grown sustainably or highly recycled content steel, but it can be used on taller buildings.

The truth is that all of these materials have their place. Wood has been king of single-family homes and multi-unit buildings from one to four stories. Light gauge steel fits the four-, five- and six-story niche, but doesn’t offer significant cost advantages compared to wood (or concrete in six- and seven-story structures). With light gauge framing as infill, concrete performs best above six stories, but its real cost advantage is in taller buildings. 

However, advances in engineering technology, design and planning software, automated fabrication and installation mapping are creating advantages for light gauge and cold-rolled framing that push it into the previously undisputed territory of wood, and up into the previously unattainable heights of concrete (up to 12 stories).

BIM Models for Better Planning And Control
Model-centric design (BIM) enables the construction industry to take major leaps forward in productivity and efficiency through a process of 3-D virtual design and development of a building’s structure, systems and components. While this technology is not new, advances in software functionality and usability are making BIM more attainable for all project stakeholders.

Data-rich 3-D models allow team members to create designs in real time and offers better version control, clash and conflict detection, planning and budgeting. These models also streamline communication, allowing any issues to be worked out in the office rather than the field, where changes are wasteful and costly.

These advances in architecture, engineering and construction technology lend themselves well to panelized light gauge and cold-rolled steel framing systems. Because steel framing is dimensionally stable and can be manufactured and installed to very tight tolerances—especially when panelized structural systems are employed—the upfront investment in model-centric design can yield better results and real savings. A much tighter match between the virtual condition and the built condition can be achieved. 

Lean Processes for Steel Prefabrication
Prefabrication of building components is lean, sustainable and efficient, and few framing materials lend themselves as well to offsite prefabrication and panelization as light gauge and cold-rolled steel. Steel panels can be assembled to tolerances not achievable with onsite stick framing or poured-in-place concrete structures.

Lean practices and automation are more easily applied in a controlled environment where throughput can be maximized by the use of automation, such as robotic welding and computer numerical control milling and drill machines controlled by software. For example, robotics can weld with near perfect precision at a rate of 30 inches per minute, compared to welding by hand, which yields 7 to 8 inches per minute. Offsite welding also eliminates onsite inspections, helping streamline approval processes.

Easier Transport and Assembly
Additionally, steel panels and light gauge and cold-rolled components will not shrink or twist, they are light and easy to transport, and they do not get damaged during transport—even over long distances or when exposed to inclement weather. And when they arrive at the jobsite, modular or panelized elements can significantly reduce site impact, layout, and dimensioning and installation time.

Site workers spend anywhere from 30 percent to 40 percent of their time stocking, sorting, moving and assembling parts to make larger assemblies. This is wasteful and inefficient and exposes the workforce to a greater risk of injury.

Instead of requiring a large crew of specialized craft professionals to assemble hundreds of parts to make wall lines, a small crew of laborers and layout engineers using prefabricated, panelized steel components can achieve production of up to 20,000 square feet of floor area per week, depending on site conditions and hoisting.

A construction site is a difficult environment to control. Panelization of a building’s structural framing system enables a more lean manufacturing approach in which components are pre-assembled and can be identified by uniform resource locator codes to be erected in a specific location. Prefabricated framing system materials are produced, shipped and stocked for assembly more efficiently, reducing the time required for installation crews to move materials around the jobsite.

With a more predictable framing system, other elements can be prefabricated to make their installation more efficient and lean. Mechanical, electrical, plumbing and other building systems and finish design components can be prefabricated offsite with certainty that they will fit as designed and will not clash with uncoordinated structural assemblies.

The precision and dimensional stability of light gauge steel framing better enables a BIM and prefabrication approach than lumber. Developing a model of a wood frame structure is time-consuming and rarely done on complex framing jobs, typically because the site-framing of a building is always an interpretation of the plans and not a precise match. Prefabrication of lumber becomes risky when changes occur from plan to as-built conditions.

Technology Helps Reduce Project Risk

An exciting convergence of technology is happening in the architecture, engineering and construction industry as a small but growing number of companies are pioneering new approaches to steel framing systems that integrate with model-centric technology platforms. The opportunity to apply technology, software, automation and lean manufacturing principals to the jobsite environment has never been more attainable. These systems give all stakeholders the opportunity to make the construction process more predictable and less risky.

John Vanker is CEO and co-founder of Prescient, an integrated manufacturing and design technology company. For more information, visit or follow @PrescientCo.